What is Family Systems Therapy?
Family systems theory was the brainchild of Dr. Murray Bowen
of Georgetown University; a psychiatrist working with patients with
schizophrenia in a hospital setting in the 1940’s and 50’s.
At that time, the predominant thinking came from Sigmund Freud and
his followers who believed that the psychology of human behaviour
was rooted in the individual. Dr. Bowen’s family systems perspective
was a major challenge to the psychiatric thinking of his day. He
deviated from the mainstream of psychiatric thinking of the 40’s
and 50’s in two important ways:
- Systems theory was developed on the assumption that an understanding
of a person’s emotional functioning must extend beyond psychological
constructs to recognize his/her relatedness to all life
- He made the assumption that a comprehensive understanding of
human behavior must rest on a foundation that moved beyond the
study of the individual to include the human’s relationship
system. In other words, Bowen proposed that the human family
operated in ways that were consistent with its being a system
and that the system’s principles of operation were rooted
Adapted from: Kerr/Bowen, Family Evaluation, 1988.
Family Systems Theory:
- is a way of understanding present situations in terms of
past relationships or family histories.
- understands the family as a single emotional unit made
up of interlocking relationships existing over many generations.
- suggests that individual behavior throughout life is more closely
related to the functioning in one’s original family
than most people realize.
- attempts to move beyond cause-and-effect thinking to
a more comprehensive understanding of the multiple factors which
interact across time to produce problems or symptoms.
- recognizes an interplay between biological, genetic, psychological,
and sociological factors in determining individual behavior.
- identifies some of the ways that human functioning is similar
to the functioning of all other forms of life, and postulates
that certain principles governing behavior are common to all life
- views most of human life as being guided by emotional forces
which to a varying degree can be regulated by an individuals ability
to think. (Emotional here includes a smorgasbord of automatic
responses such as those driven by instinct, genetics, biology,
and hormones as well as automatic feeling or sensory responses.)
- postulates that the degree to which individuals may be able
to exercise some choice regarding how much they respond to
their automatic emotional input can be predicted by understanding
the functioning of the family unit.
- indicates that people are able to modify their responses
to the automatic emotional input by undertaking a study of
their own patterns of behavior and their link to those in their
Borrowed from the Western
Pennsylvania Family Center website.
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